I narrowly made it off the waiting list to attend the “Committing Journalism” talk at the Bookworm today. The panel consisted of China-focused foreign journalists Gady Epstein, Lucy Hornby, Louisa Lim and Keith Richardson. I was interested in this talk because I have often read these journalists’ articles in foreign news, and have also wondered about the reality of censorship issues as I write my blog.

The panel touched on a range of journalistic issues including their opinions on Chinese recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and fact checking in a tightly regulated country. (For the record, Epstein was in favor of the decision to award Liu Xiaobo the Nobel Peace Prize, noting that “the world has decided to accept China as it is,” despite any real progress in political reform.) I was generally surprised to find consensus among these writers regarding their ability to report candidly and without fear of censorship. Epstein noted that despite the fact there have been vast changes in what is considered sensitive subject material in China over the years, he has not felt limited in his ability to report on a wide range of issues. Hornby added that it is neither international relations nor foreign politics the dictate her journalistic path, but rather the demands and expectations of her foreign audience. She further elaborated that she often feels China’s pain in the way the nation is portrayed by the media in terms of makes the news and what doesn’t. Hornby insightfully flipped the issue of western reporting on its head and posed the question of how America may look through the lens of Chinese reporting, asking “What perspective would they take and what would they get wrong?”

I found journalist Louisa Lim to be a particularly engaging member of the panel. She humored the audience with an anecdote about her recent visa delay, which came as a direct result of questioning the relationship between Haibao (the mascot of the Shanghai Expo) and Gumby. Lims apparently held up photos of the two characters as she asked about their similarities, which garnered a lot of media buzz and resulted in a 6-month delay of her visa. The journalist explained, however, that this was her first experience with visa troubles in China. She also commented about the impact of social media in journalism, noting the positive benefits of programs like Twitter and Weibo to serve as a “live tip line” of sorts. She added that she recently received the opportunity to visit North Korea for a day through tweeted tip detailing an opportunity for foreign journalists to visit the country.

In response to the question of the impact of social media on the job of reporters, Richardson remarked that social media is just a platform for news. He believes that correspondents are still essential to being on the ground to receive and interpret real-time information.

The panel also offered some practical advice to those seeking a career in foreign journalism. Lims recommended learning fluent Chinese in order to work in China, where bureaus typically find it easier to train a Chinese-speaker to be a journalist than to train a journalist to speak fluent Chinese. Richardson added that there are more specialists than generalists available in the world of reporting, and that working first in a newsroom and proving one’s ability to produce great stories in any environment is one of the most valuable skills in the field. Epstein also emphasized the importance of simple being in the country where one wants to report and writing about it.

To wrap up, the panel offered their advice about particularly good Chinese news sources. Hornby remarked that Taixing/Taijing, Economic Observer, Beijing Times and Global Times are all high-quality Chinese publications, and that China Smack and Danwei are good for English speakers. Epstein added that David Bandurski’s book, Investigative Journalism in China has been a go-to reference for many foreign journalists.

Listening to this panel answered many of my questions regarding the limits to freedom of the foreign press in China, and eased my fears that foreign journalists feel somewhat limited in their ability to report candidly about China. Nonetheless, I was still reminded of an anecdote from Peter Hessler’s, Oracle Bones when Hessler opens an envelope and is rather shocked to find edited and blacked out copies of his prior writing, presumably censored by the Chinese government. Despite feeling under the radar as a foreign correspondent in Beijing, Hessler was clearly not as inconspicuous as he perceived. Seeing as the Chinese government awards and carefully tracks the visas issued to foreign journalists, I can only assume that despite feeling quite free to report in China, those on the panel also have quite a file.

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